This Companion Stories Series features essays which look at my album The Work and each of its songs in detail, going behind the scenes to de-mystify what artists too often try to keep mysterious.
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Ideology is one of my favorite songs on the album. It is sparse and hard-hitting, using every element, including its silences, to bring home the lyrics and allow the listener to process them. The gravelly guitar part was also my favorite to play.
In this song, I let out my frustration with the division of belief into black and white, wrong and right, my way and your way, that seems to have become increasingly pervasive. Lack of nuance, which is to say lack of humanity, has sucked in so many of us, and I feel a constant pressure to align myself with its insidious variations so I can feel better about myself and the world. With these lyrics, though, I am reminding myself and anyone who will listen that the beauty of life lies outside the binary.
The first line comes directly from one of America’s most starkly ideological protest songs: “War” by Edwin Starr. I am intentionally setting the listener up here, because I have every intention of subverting what I’ve just led them to think I believe: “War: what is it good for? Peace: when will it be?” But then the words, “But why do these have to be the only options for me?” It might seem strange to say that war isn’t necessarily bad and peace isn’t necessarily good. But it seems to me that war and peace are both essential elements of the human condition, and therefore of the world, and that clinging to the sanctity of either one is to ignore the breathtaking beauty and complexity of our experience. It is to deny fundamental facts of nature that make life, life.
The second verse posits that there is so much delicious, pliable gray area between religious belief and atheism: “Creed: a drug of conceit. Doubt: just a different devout. But why are these prisons indeed the only options for me?” Personally, I think I sense the presence of something beyond my human comprehension, the way there is a species of frog that has no ears but can feel vibrations, sensing that there exists a realm of sound. But every attempt to explain that feels feeble and hopelessly egoic to me, and I refuse to become party to the awful legacy of dogma. Similarly, the stubborn assertion that our human understanding comprises all understanding seems awfully shortsighted. What makes us so afraid of simply not knowing?
The third verse is patently political: “Right can’t see I’m alive. Left can’t seem to forget. But why is ideology the only option for me?” I see America’s binary system of liberal and conservative ideology as destructive and unrealistic, especially the way it manifests in most mainstream media, and I cannot align myself with either one. Both use ill-defined doctrines to rally and divide, and both can be comfortingly blinding.
The overall argument I’m making here is this: Two things can be true at the same time. “A” being true does not make “B” untrue. Nuance is humanity. Humanity is our reality. We are walking balls of complexity yet we refuse to acknowledge the power in that, opting instead for convenience. My friend Kathryn once said to me, “Humans aren’t hypocritical; they’re complicated”, and I couldn’t agree more. Ideology is entirely understandable; it makes sense to want something to hold onto, to crave rules to follow that will purify us from the stain and strain of being human. But it so often tears people apart. In trying to ameliorate the pain of life, it ends up causing more pain. The good news is that ideology tends to break down in the face of real, messy, human love. It breaks down when we engage with life.
The musical elements of this song are very intentional. The chain noises are samples I took from the production office at my workplace: picking up handfuls of nuts and bolts – simple, clear cut objects – and dropping them back into the confused pile. The percussion as a whole is meant to evoke old work songs – often songs of the enslaved – representing “the work” that belies ideology. And if American slavery isn’t an example of ideology as a perversion of humanity, I don’t know what is. The rough, mechanical-sounding guitar is the roughness and brutality of life, existing in tandem with soaring melody lines that speak of life’s emotion and beauty.
Join me here next Friday for the next installment of my Companion Stories Series where we’ll go into my song No Simple Love.
Words are the backbone of my music. They often reference powerful ideas that strike me in my readings or develop from my life experiences. The creative expression of these ideas sometimes begs for musical form, and other times it comes out on the page. Here is a selection of my lyrics, poems, essays and other writings.